Derek Acorah: When two worlds collide

Derek Acorah: When two worlds collide
27 April 2009
Evan Beswick
The Journal

“I would say that the scepticism business, really, it’s a minority,” Derek Acorah tells me after all of about three minutes. Currently on tour and playing to packed houses, spiritual medium and star of television’s Most Haunted is nothing if not committed to his work. Two tours per year, on top of television and book-writing (”It’s about my experiences, the places in the world I’ve found myself, and encountering spirit people”); Acorah is, by his own admission, Britain’s hardest working medium. Indeed, he’s immersed in his work in a way which other professions—professions which avoid, say, spiritual possession—do not usually require.

It ought perhaps come as no surprise then that, from Acorah’s perspective, scepticism is indeed a minority notion: “As a matter of fact, I always stay behind to do signings and have photographs and talk to people after the shows, and every one of them seem to be saying ‘when are you coming back? when are you coming back?’ And I said ‘I’ve only just finished!’ So that’s a good sign, you know.”

“A good sign for whom?” I almost ask. But don’t. An admission is perhaps necessary here: I am not, and have never been in contact with the spiritual world. I have, moreover, no desire to do so; I remember grandad’s coin through the table trick, and that’s fine. I have, however, watched Acorah’s performances on Most Haunted and giggled at his “possessed” growlings; I’ve enjoyed John Culshaw’s impressions; I’ve cheered on Harry Hill—ahem, Bafta award winning Harry Hill—and his ebullient mockery of the paranormal explorer.

But, despite having just driven from Inverness for tonight’s show in Glasgow, Derek Acorah has been good enough to spend the best part of half an hour trying to extricate himself to a quiet spot for us to have a chat. One can’t imagine he particularly enjoys talking to journalists—particularly the puffed up, self-important student sort—a bunch who tend to sit staunchly on the side of aggressive scepticism where the charge of quackery can be easily levelled. It seems fair to conduct the interview with an open mind. Perhaps our two worlds aren’t entirely irreconcilable?

I start with the football. But rather than grasping at the straws of forced male affability, I’m on legitimate ground here: Born Derek Johnson, Acorah, 59, began his working career not as a spiritual medium, but as a footballer with none other than Liverpool FC. Ending his sporting run at USC Lion in Australia, he returned home to Liverpool and eventually found what he terms his “niche” developing the spiritual powers he claims to have inherited from his grandmother, also a medium. In 1996, after years on the circuit, Acorah gave a psychic reading on the Granada programme Livetime, and a television career was launched.

“I was absolutely gutted when I heard the result,” he groans. Liverpool had last night drawn 4-4 with Arsenal in an extra-time nail-biter. “It was amazing, just amazing, you know, to see them score these goals in the last couple of minutes against Chelsea and then against Arsenal and then not get the points. Ah, so disappointing. It’s just not our season.”

That's the ice successfully broken. I’m more keen, however, to get an idea of some of the positive aspects of what he consistently refers to as his “work”. What does one gain from an acceptance that Acorah’s performances on stage and TV are, indeed, the real deal?

“When a person opens up to the possibility and the probability that [communication with spirits] is the truth, then something happens to them; a metamorphosis takes place of some kind and, you know, they start looking at things brighter, and looking at their lives in a brighter way. They start to say it’s all worthwhile because at the end of the day it’s nice to think that there’s somewhere else that we’re going and that we’re not being snuffed out at the end of this physical life.”

Sadly, though, this affability can’t last indefinitely, and it’s on the sharp point of spiritual doubt that we get stuck again: “I can’t believe the way the word scepticism is used in our country today,” he laments. “In this present day and age, it seems, I don’t know why, but most journalists or reporters they will always bring up the scepticism: ‘it’s rife, isn’t it’ or ‘there’s an awful lot of it’. And I say, ‘no there’s not’.”

For “journalists,” one might also substitute “scientists,” who have tended to have equally nasty things to say about clairvoyants: “Well, science only comes from calculation.” He enunciates this with a suitable degree of—for want of a better word—scepticism. “Generally and, up to now, the scientists haven’t been able to calculate...what they can’t calculate they believe not to be so.

“Scientists have not really, overall, have not really concentrated on the metaphysical as much as they have on other things. Had they done, and put the time in, who knows? Maybe they would have scientifically proven it without a shadow of a doubt by now. It’s just a matter of time. It will happen.”

It’s a metaphysical wrangle we are unlikely to settle over the course of our somewhat more prosaic conversation. And in spite of his relative optimism here he is, understandably perhaps, quite weary of all this, remaining far more at ease when discussing his own work. And it’s work he’s immensely proud of. Acorah, he details, practices “what we call a discipline—a coded discipline—where I open up to the spirit world when I’m doing spiritual work. When I’m not working, in my time off, I close down and I’m just an ordinary guy.”

I admit to the performer that I was somewhat intrigued as to whether his daily activities—shopping, driving—were interrupted by spiritual intrusions. “That would be silly,” he retorts. “It would just be ludicrous because I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the loved ones of those spirit people because they wouldn’t be around.” Just as “ignorant” are questions regarding his ability to read minds – his work concerns only “natural mediumship; clairvoyance and clairordinance.” I don’t know what the second one is, but opt not to ask. Whatever else, he’s extremely knowledgeable about his field; almost schoolmasterish. I cringe slightly when, scrabbling for jargon, I use the term “spiritual things.”

Of course, he should know his stuff. By most accounts, Acorah is the daddy of the profession, having trod the circuit for the best part of 35 years. While friends with fellow old-timers such as Colin Fry, he’s somewhat dismissive of the young guns: “You see these mediums coming out of the woodwork; they’ve been about for two or three years and their egos are so big and what have you. And they haven’t walked the walk. And, you know, they wonder why they fall down after maybe one tour or two tours because they haven’t got the stamina, the spiritual stamina.”

Once in his stride, Acorah really does heft around a great deal of bravado. It's a stark contrast to the way he speaks of one of his least impressive episodes. While on a Most Haunted “investigation” at Bodmin jail, footage shows apparently possessed by the spirit of a man he reveals to be “Kreed Kafer”. Having seemingly summoned a particularly stroppy South African turnkey, Derek is quickly raised from his spiritual stupor by concerned crew members.

But Ciarán O'Keeffe, a lecturer in the paranormal at Liverpool's Hope University, and the show’s “official sceptic” at the time claims to have made up the name—an anagram of “Derek Faker”—and fed it as historical fact to Acorah prior to the shoot. Weeks later, this time soul-searching at Prideaux Place, Cornwall, O’Keeffe pulled the same trick with “Rik Eedles” – itself an anagram of “Derek Lies”. Acorah duly performed, passing off the fictional character as an outlaw with whom he had made contact.

Unsurprisingly, Acorah is less than enamoured when I raise this: “I’m not prepared to talk to you or anyone else about that," he says, a little snappily. To me it’s old chippie paper. That happened about four years ago. It’s not even worth talking about. I have made a statement with an explanation of that.

“Why you...why journalists bring this up four and a half years on, God only knows. Maybe it’s the scepticism side of you. Why don’t you let it go? You know it to be nonsense. I mean, everyone in Fleet street, all the top people, know the truth. There was one red top reporter that thought he had information from someone [...] who was against me, OK, and put that and only one paper touched it. The rest of Fleet Street left it alone, because they knew it was rubbish.”

One can’t help but feel the broadsheets left the story alone for reasons other than factual inaccuracy, the uncovering of psychic tricksters having ceased to be news since Victoria ruled the waves. Still, this interviewer apparently hasn’t got over it yet. And neither, it seems, has Acorah. He continues: “And the person who reported it is now no longer at that major tabloid; he’s at some little shit-town where he’s just...just gone missing, because he knows it was lies when he was approached.”

Now, even the most perfunctory sleuthing reveals that the journalist who wrote the story, Matt Roper, still works for the Mail. Indeed, his latest piece, ‘Susan Boyle: The only man to have ever kissed the Britain's Got Talent star speaks out’, suggests he remains very much in the same line of work. But, in reality, there’s little point pressing this; it’s too late and I’ve ruined it.

Minutes later, he calls our interview to a close. He’ll perform at Glasgow’s Concert Hall this evening to crowds who gain some sort of closure or comfort from the “spiritual readings” he does on stage. I’ll go off and write this, knowing that I’ve failed to reconcile either of the two spheres we inhabit. And neither of us will really care.

Derek Acorah performs at the Edinburgh Playhouse, 27 June
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